Food as Medicine: What is a Balanced Diet and Why is it Important?

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Roughly 60% of Americans are living with a chronic disease. And in our quick-fix-oriented culture, many of us run to the medicine cabinet the moment symptoms arise. But what if the solution were actually in the produce aisle–or in our own kitchens? 

In this article, we’ll explore the science behind using food as medicine, and learn how to make everyday meals an ally in protecting our health.

The link between nutrition and chronic disease prevention

The famous ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, once said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food…” and he was onto something. 

For over 3,000 years, cultures across the globe have been harnessing the healing power of food to ward off disease and boost their overall well-being. And the Western world is slowly but surely catching up.

Modern science confirms the link between nutrition and chronic disease prevention. Among other lifestyle choices, research shows a nutritious, balanced diet can contribute to the prevention of up to 80% of premature heart disease, as well as many other ailments. 

Dietary elements like antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber play critical roles in the body’s ability to fight illness. For example, antioxidants combat inflammation and oxidative stress (damage from unstable, oxygen-containing molecules called free radicals)–two key factors in chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. 

And the beneficial impact of these substances is even greater when you consume them in their whole-food forms–as opposed to taking isolated nutritional supplements.

According to Ann Wigmore, author of The Wheatgrass Book and founder of the Ann Wigmore Natural Health Institute, “The food you eat can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” 

What is a balanced diet and why is it important?

A balanced diet is one of the best defenses against illness. But it involves more than just swapping french fries for greens. It’s about making sure to include a diverse assortment of nutrients from various food groups. 

Many studies have linked eating patterns like the Mediterranean Diet, in particular, with lower risks of chronic disease. This kind of diet includes:

  • Fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors to provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
  • Whole grains
  • Lean proteins like fish, poultry, tofu, and beans
  • Healthy fats, such as avocados, olive oil, and nuts
  • Moderate amounts of dairy products like milk and cheese, or dairy alternatives such as almond milk

But how can healthy eating benefit you, specifically? Along with disease prevention, here are some vital effects:

  • Better heart and eye health
  • Balanced blood sugar
  • Healthy weight maintenance
  • Optimal digestion and diverse gut microbiota, which both play a part in the prevention of many chronic conditions
  • More balanced mood 
  • Overall well-being, including heightened energy levels
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As you can see, using food as medicine unlocks a treasure trove of incredible health benefits. But don’t worry; it doesn’t mean you can’t ever enjoy your favorite not-so-nutritious treats. It simply means:

  • Enjoying all essential food groups in healthy proportions
  • Making informed food choices without giving up the pleasure of eating
  • Indulging in sweet treats only occasionally and in moderation

Key foods and their health benefits

Here are some particularly powerful, nutrient-dense foods that can significantly reduce your risk of chronic disease.

  • Avocados: Loaded with healthy fats and vitamins E and C, avocados boost heart and skin health, and can help prevent osteoporosis and depression.
  • Leafy greens (spinach, kale, collards): Packed with vitamins A, C, and K and minerals like calcium, these anti-inflammatory veggies support bone health and protect us from heart disease, stroke, macular degeneration, and even some cancers.
  • Berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries): High in antioxidants and fiber, berries fight inflammation and oxidative stress. Studies also suggest that blackberries, in particular, can reduce body fat and increase insulin sensitivity–two key factors in type 2 diabetes.
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds): Rich in healthy fats, protein, and fiber, nuts and seeds boost heart and brain health, reduce inflammation, and support weight management. Studies show that enjoying just a handful of nuts and seeds daily can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by about 25%.
  • Whole grains: Loaded with fiber, B vitamins, and minerals, these support weight loss, balanced gut microbiota, and even a reduced risk of dying from heart disease and cancer.
  • Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines): Omega-3 fatty acids in fish boost brain health by increasing neuronal regeneration and cognitive performance. They also fight heart disease by reducing blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and inflammation, improving blood vessel function, and preventing arterial plaque buildup.
  • Garlic: Known for its antiviral and immune-boosting properties, garlic also lowers blood pressure and supports heart health. Some studies even suggest garlic can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events in those with hypertension by 16-40%.

Practical tips to start using food as medicine

Transitioning to a more balanced, nutritious diet might feel daunting at first. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some tips to get you going.

  • Start small. Gradually introduce healthier options into your meals–such as replacing french fries with baked sweet potato–to ease the transition.
  • Cook at home to give yourself more control over ingredients.
  • Plan your meals ahead of time, making sure they include diverse, nutrient-packed foods. 
  • To avoid grabbing unhealthy options on-the-go, pack healthy snacks like nuts or fresh fruit on workdays.
  • Follow the USDA’s guideline of filling half your plate with fresh produce, a quarter with whole grains, and a quarter with protein. 
  • Experiment with recipes that incorporate several of the superfoods mentioned above. For example, try making a smoothie with leafy greens, berries, and chia seeds.
  • Listen to your body. Pay attention to how different foods make you feel, and adjust your diet accordingly so you always feel your best.
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Armed with these tools, you can start using food as medicine and significantly reduce your risk of disease. A healthier, more balanced diet means a healthier, more balanced you.

Nutrition’s role in chronic disease prevention

Of course, diet is only one piece of the prevention puzzle. Chronic disease is complex, and there are other factors, such as:

  • Genetics
  • Stress levels
  • Tobacco use
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Level of physical activity
  • Exposure to environmental toxins
  • Autoimmune conditions, which can increase susceptibility to other illnesses

Still, when we prioritize healthy eating, we’re creating an excellent foundation for lasting health.

The link between nutrition and chronic disease prevention is undeniable. Whether you’re diving headfirst into a balanced diet or taking gradual steps by swapping healthier options for sugary treats and salty snacks, you’re taking a meaningful step towards better well-being, vitality, and longevity. 

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Chronic Disease Center (NCCDPHP) | CDC

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Let thy food be thy medicine….when possible

Food Is Medicine: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association | Circulation

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Oxidative Stress: Harms and Benefits for Human Health – PMC

Related:   Back to School in Changing Times

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Effects of Dietary Fiber and Its Components on Metabolic Health – PMC

Mediterranean Diet and its Benefits on Health and Mental Health: A Literature Review – PMC

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Healthy Eating As You Age: Know Your Food Groups | National Institute on Aging

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Prospective Study of Avocado Consumption and Cancer Risk in US Men and Women – PMC

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Dietary Fibre from Whole Grains and Their Benefits on Metabolic Health – PMC

Health Benefits of Dietary Whole Grains: An Umbrella Review of Meta-analyses – PMC

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A fish a day, keeps the cardiologist away! – A review of the effect of omega-3 fatty acids in the cardiovascular system – PMC

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Garlic lowers blood pressure in hypertensive subjects, improves arterial stiffness and gut microbiota: A review and meta-analysis

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Author
Carrie Solomon

Carrie Solomon is a freelance health writer, web copywriter, and passionate wellness enthusiast. She’s on a mission to help wellness-focused companies everywhere educate, engage, and inspire their audiences to make the world a healthier, happier place. Learn more about her at copybycarrie.com or on LinkedIn.

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